A dandelion grows in City 17

The Atlantic has an amazing gallery of photographs from North Korea. Every photograph in the set is striking, but none more than the first one.

Pyongyang at dusk
The North Korean capital of Pyongyang at dusk

There is a surreal, science-fictional quality to this photograph. All of the buildings have a similar blue-gray color, streaked with mold and decay. Every window seems to be dark. A single automobile lurks at the bottom margins of the shot, with a lonely pair of pedestrians nearby. Were it not for their presence, this would seem to be a dead city, the victim of some apocalyptic evacuation. And I experienced a delirious shiver of ostranenie when I realized that perhaps the strangest thing about the city was that it bore no scar of advertising.

The Pyongyang of this photograph doesn’t seem like a real place. It seems rather like a pure archetype, an image of the Stalinist wasteland that has populated the Western imagination of the Soviet states since the 1950s. It seems impossible for any real city to be so desolate. This is a city where the worst thing we can imagine has already happened. This is the London of 1984. This is City 17.

And yet.

My in-laws lived their entire lives in Communist Romania, under the dictator Ceausescu until his deposal in 1989. They have fond memories of this time, and will often tell me wistfully of how peaceful and orderly their world was before the turbulence of the revolution. My wife remembers playing with her sisters while they stood in line to buy milk, and pinching the baby so that people would let them move forward in line. They had to wait in line for milk, because it was rarely available and tightly rationed, but this was normal and expected. She has pictures of herself, dressed in a new dress with her hair up in bows, singing the anthem beneath the portrait of Ceausescu on the schoolhouse wall. They lived in what we would consider dire poverty and repression, but these facts did not define their lives. They managed to get married, to have children, to play with their classmates and dress in new clothes, to sing songs and bicker with their sisters.

This is not to say that there were no difficulties, that we should envy the Communist system, or that we should make light of its crimes. It is rather to marvel at the resiliency of those who lived there. Though they lived in a dystopia, they still lived. No one told them that it was a dystopia and that they were obliged to be unhappy. And unburdened by that knowledge, many of them were happy.

Another striking photograph from the set above shows two female soldiers walking hand-in-hand down a crowded street. They aren’t looking at the photographer. They aren’t performing at a state-sponsored event meant to honor the regime. Nor are they characters in a drama meant to impress on us the horror of their situation. They’re living their lives.

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1 Comment

  1. while the communist regime in Romania was increasingly harsh during the ’80s because of isolationist policies (Ceausescu was obsessed with paying the national debt at the expense of the wellfare of its people), it was nowhere near the insanity and tragedy of what NK is still going through. it would be really unfair for both sides to assume so.

    in communist Romania there were no stalinist gulags after Ceausescu came to power, most dissidents were demoted in their careers, on house arrest or exiled in the West, caught defectors would get a couple of years (at most) of jailtime, instead of being summarily executed and their relatives sent to labour camps etc.

    that’s why people can have fond memories of those times, while ignoring the uglier parts (queues for rationed food, pollitical police, restricted contact with the outside). you could break the rules without the ruthless repercussions of NK, people had their escapisms throughout their struggle.

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